Academic journal article Demographic Research

Gender Equity and Fertility Intentions in Italy and the Netherlands

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Gender Equity and Fertility Intentions in Italy and the Netherlands

Article excerpt


Fertility levels have fallen drastically in most industrialized countries. Diverse theoretical and empirical frameworks have had difficulty explaining these unprecedented low levels of fertility. More recently, however, attention has turned from classic explanations, such as women's increased labour market participation, to gender equity as the essential link to understand this phenomenon. Increases in women's labour market participation did not prompt a rise in men's domestic duties, often referred to as women's 'dual burden' or 'second shift'. Beyond the household, institutions and policies within countries facilitate or constrain the combination of women's employment with fertility. This paper provides an empirical test of gender equity theory by examining whether the unequal division of household labour leads to lower fertility intentions of women within different institutional contexts. Italy constitutes a case of low gender equity, low female labour market participation and the lowest-low fertility. The Netherlands has moderate to high gender equity, high part-time female labour market participation and comparatively higher fertility. Using data from the 2003 Italian Multipurpose Survey - Family and Social Actors and the Dutch sample from the 2004/5 European Social Survey, a series of logistic regression models test this theory. A central finding is that an unequal division of household labour only significantly impacts women's fertility intentions when they already bear a heavy load (more work hours, children), a finding that is particularly salient for working women in Italy.

1. Introduction

Fertility levels have fallen well below replacement level in many industrialized countries, prompting some to argue that we are now experiencing a fertility crisis (Caldwell & Schindlmayr, 2003). International organizations such as the United Nations (2000) have suggested that if these levels persist, countries would have to seek other options, such as massive migration to counter population decline. This decline in fertility has become an increasing concern, particularly in southern European countries where fertility levels have fallen well below the replacement rate for a longer period (Chenais, 1996). These unprecedented levels of low fertility have serious long-term consequences, including aging populations, a decline in the active working population and smaller overall populations (Teitelbaum & Winter, 1985).

A large body of research has focussed on potential reasons and underlying theories to explain low fertility, ranging from economic motives and opportunity costs of having children, to economic uncertainty and shifts in ideology and investments in children. More recently, however, gender equity has been posited as an essential link in understanding the low fertility phenomenon (McDonald 2000a; Cooke 2003). The changing position of women, including women's increased participation in education and the labour force and the availability of reliable forms of contraception, has been seen as vital to interpret decreases in fertility (Rindfuss et al., 1996). Women's increased participation in education and the labour market, however, provides only a partial explanation.

First, it is not only women's behaviour, but also the behaviour of their partners that affects fertility intentions. Although women across many Western countries now achieve high levels of education and participate in the labour market, women's role and the division of household labour within the family has remained relatively constant. This is what Hochschild (1989) referred to as the 'stalled revolution'. A second key factor is the 'gender system' in each country, which entails the different rights and obligations provided to men and women. Gender systems are increasingly viewed as the missing link in understanding the persistence of low fertility (Mason and Oppenheim, 1997). McDonald (2000b; 2006) proposes that this disparity is attributed to varying levels of gender equity in different social institutions. …

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